Job, Debate, and the Shaping of Lives

Susannah Ticciati 
University of Cambridge

My aim in the following is, first of all, to bring the different articles into debate with each other. In hosting this virtual debate, I will pick up on the sorts of convergences and divergences I outlined in the introduction and explore them further in the attempt to uncover deeper convergences and divergences. Provoked by the tone of the different articles, and indeed by the very nature of the scriptural accounts of Job, the discussion will shift gradually into the theoretical mode, my voice as host emerging more strongly as I navigate my way through the various articles and reflect on the larger questions that arise between them. More specifically, this will involve the development of a hermeneutic that provides, from my own Christian perspective, one way of dealing with such questions. One of the larger questions I will consider in this connection is the following: how do we deal with difference? And are there different kinds of difference: some productive, others destructive; some fostering the reshaping of life and others hindering it?

I will begin with an interesting convergence between Yazicioglu and Adams, already hinted at in the introduction. While Yazicioglu starts with the surprising juxtaposition in Sura 38:44 of Job’s complaint to God and his appraisal by God as patient, Adams sets out from a parallel juxtaposition of Job’s argumentative stance towards God (Job 13:15) and God’s subsequent praise of his speech (Job 42:7-8). In both cases the text presents the reader with an oddity over which she is made to puzzle, and this interruptive puzzlement leads to redefinition: in Yazicioglu’s case, of evil and patience, and in Adams’s, of the kind of wisdom we should seek in our lives together. There is not only a structural similarity, however. Both are concerned with the form our relationship to God must take in the alien situations we find ourselves in. For Yazicioglu, patience must become complaint when we have become victims of Satan’s whisperings. These threaten our connection with God by insinuating that God is against us, so that we can no longer recognise God’s mercy. The loss of this connection to God’s mercy is, ultimately, unbelief. This threat constitutes the alienness of Job’s situation of suffering. Unbelief lurks within him, a force to be reckoned with. For this reason, Job’s “patience [can only express] itself in [his] impatiently crying out to God and complaining about [Satan’s whisperings]” – about unbelief. Unbelief will begin to take over if Job does not tackle it head on.

It is at this point that there appears to emerge a divergence from Mermer, where the note of wrestling with unbelief within oneself is replaced by that of rising above unbelief , leaving it behind with the help of the light of the Qur’an. This comes out particularly strongly in one of her citations from Nursi:

As I started to utter fearful objections about Divine determining ( qadar ) and the grievous circumstances of the outer face of life and its events, the light of the Qur’an, … and belief in Divine Unity came to my assistance. They lit up those darknesses, and transformed my laments into joy…

However, this distinction becomes murky when one returns to Adams’s account of the biblical Job. According to this, Job lives his whole life in a state of alienation. It is not just at moments of extreme suffering that God is alien to him: these moments serve rather to reveal his whole existence within history as one of alienness. Or at least Adams suggests this when he moves from Job’s relation with God to ours with each other, in which we encounter one another in an alien form – thereby treating Job’s situation as a norm. The inability to recognise God’s mercy, the threat of unbelief, and the plague of Satan’s whisperings are constant, inescapable factors of Job’s, and perhaps also our, situation.

This highlights the fact that, for Yazicioglu, the threat of unbelief is not a continual threat, and complaint correspondingly not always the appropriate mode of patience. In earlier correspondence she pointed out that Job is traditionally thought to have borne with his situation for a long time before mounting any complaint. Furthermore, she suggested that the real significance of his prayer of complaint against unbelief is its ready acceptance by God. This realigns her somewhat with Mermer in the implication that prayer overcomes unbelief.

A perhaps even greater divergence emerging between Yazicioglu’s and Adams’s accounts concerns God’s relation to the world. To the biblical Job, God appears in an alien form that simply cannot be bypassed. One might say that God’s mercy is objectively obscured. For the Qur’anic Job, by contrast, the alienness of his situation and of his God are constituted by his temporary inability to recognise God’s mercy. It is not that God has taken on another form. It is a matter of learning how to read the various facets of creation as signs of God’s mercy. As Mermer says, “[Job] was aware that … [everything that befell him is a witness] to Divine mercy. Such awareness is patience.” Yazicioglu, moreover, gets right to the heart of the matter when she connects this right reading of creation with the realisation that “the Merciful cannot be against us”.

Some fundamental presuppositions surface at this point, presuppositions which run through Yazicioglu’s article without necessarily being made explicit. The first of these begins to emerge early on, in Yazicioglu’s description of the false dichotomy between God’s will and mine: the delusion “that while we want healing, God opposes us by decreeing sickness, and therefore that God is against us.” This dichotomy is only overcome in the movement of turning back to God and realising that my suffering is itself another reflection of God’s mercy, and therefore only apparent evil as opposed to real evil. Implicit in this is the belief that if my suffering were real evil, then God could only be against me. Satan’s whisperings consist in trying to persuade me precisely of this. Here, then, is the first presupposition:

1. The belief that affliction is evil = the belief that God is against one. 1

The second is already present in the distinction between apparent and real evil. Real evil, according to Yazicioglu, is that which harms my relation to the Creator, “penetrating to the seat of belief”. And Job’s prayer, which Yazicioglu describes as his turning to God “not in accusation of Divine mercy but in patience, which comes from trusting in God’s mercy”, is its remedy. Implicit in this is that trust in God’s mercy is the only faithful form of relation to God. In contrast to this:

2. The belief that God is against one = real evil/unbelief. 2

Finally, because my connection to God consists in my recognition of God’s mercy in all that happens to me, the belief that God is against me is my loss of connection to God.

These presuppositions are the network surrounding Yazicioglu’s claim that “the Merciful cannot be against us”. However, it is clear in Adams’s account, at least insofar as it draws on Barth, that the alien form in which God appears to Job is precisely God’s being against Job. The book of Job throws up precisely the question which Yazicioglu cannot contemplate:

  • Can God be our God and still be against us?

With this, each link within Yazicioglu’s network is broken. The gulf opens up between the Qur’anic Job’s complaining, which reconnects him to the merciful God, and the biblical Job’s arguing, in which he wrestles with and accuses the God who is against him. What Yazicioglu names unbelief is in Adams’s account “the appropriate form of relation to God when God appears in this alien form”, in which Job “shows himself to be ‘my servant Job'”. Again, the book confronts us with the question:

  • Can we be true servants of God through arguing with God, not just despite arguing with God?

In Adams’s account, furthermore, affliction is not reinterpreted in terms of Divine mercy, but is acknowledged as evil. This is not, however, to make the link of presupposition 1. For although Job’s affliction is interpreted as God’s being against him, this is not incompatible with God’s also being for him: God commends Job as having spoken correctly, thereby affirming him as his servant. The false dichotomy of wills described by Yazicioglu is in Adams’s account complexified.

We have, then, two deeply conflicting portraits of God’s servant, Job. Where do we go from here? If it were simply a matter of forming a picture of Job as exemplar and applying the results in one’s own life, the uncovering of this divergence would represent the end of the dialogue. We could only go our separate ways. However, to part here would be to miss the deeper, more difficult and more central point of Adams’s argument: debate should not simply be about the pursuit and exchange of information; it is about the formation of lives – the learning of practical wisdom.

In what follows, I will take up this insight in the development of a Christian hermeneutic which, from its particular vantage point, addresses and works towards a way of dealing with the divergence that has emerged. This is not offered as a general answer to the problem, but rather as a particular response, which in turn invites other particular Jewish and Muslim responses. Further, it is developed only through reflection on and in dialogue with the other articles – emerging in the imaginative space that is created between them. This, of course, means that I take the debate in a particular direction, but not, I hope, at the expense of listening carefully to the different voices within the debate.

The implications of Adams’s claim are enormous, and it will take the rest of this dialogical reflection even to begin to plumb them. However, some initial remarks need to be made. The divergence we have uncovered occurs, in the broadest sense, on the level of information. It emerges in the comparison between the portraits of Job resulting from readings of two different texts. These results can be summed up and offered as information, however complex they might be. This does not, of course, mean that the divergence is not to be taken seriously. On the contrary, to take it seriously is to allow it to be life-shaping: to engage with the other in her difference from me in a way that reshapes me.

All this has hermeneutical consequences. If Job were simply to function as an exemplar in the way described above, my life would be formed by information about Job read off from scripture. In this case, my life would be shaped neither by my interaction with the other in her difference from me, nor directly by my interaction with scripture. Information culled from scripture would hold me at a distance from both. Adams’s emphasis on practical wisdom precludes precisely this kind of short-circuiting of the process of learning how to live. It is not just a matter of recognising the practical implications of informational claims. Rather, it is a matter of holding open my relation to scripture and to others where there is difference, conflict, and – very often – pain. These dimensions must not be suppressed by a one-sided interest in information: “knock-down arguments are problematic: at best their bids for legitimation succeed in knocking people down.” In other words, it is in our interactions that we learn how to live – with each other, and with scripture, just as Job learns to live in the process of arguing with God. These interactions cannot be replaced by the information gained in the process of interaction.

Adams’s distinction between the pursuit of information and the learning of practical wisdom finds a parallel in Elkins’s distinction between “theodicy [and] compassionate action” as different responses to the problem of evil, a distinction which is bound up in his article with a more explicitly developed hermeneutic. I will now take some time to explore the relation between Adams’s and Elkins’s articles. Adams’s concern is debate in today’s public sphere and its tendency to divorce intellectual from practical wisdom. Elkins addresses a similar divorce both within modern philosophy, which has “broken connections between thought and action”, addressing problems only intellectually when they in fact require reparative response; and within practices of scriptural interpretation, which have shifted from reading the scriptures as “instruction in discipleship or wisdom” towards treating them as historical documents. Elkins’s critique of theodicies that suppress and deny the enormity of suffering, and his emphasis on the need for a recognition of, and reparative response to, suffering, echo Adams’s critique of bids for legitimation which have been divorced from the embrace of pain.

In his reading of Job, Elkins moves towards a healing of the divorce he finds in philosophical and scriptural practice through the rehabilitation of scripture as that which shapes the lives of communities. His central insight into the book of Job is that it shows up “the pragmatic inconsistency between [Job’s] friends’ recognition that Job is suffering and their failure to assuage his suffering”. The book thus “bring[s] the reader so near to Job’s suffering that they feel the contradiction between describing someone as ‘suffering’ without thought and action to prevent this suffering”. It is this which “moves [the reader] beyond argument to corrective, healing action”. While Adams discovers a movement of healing within the text (Job gradually learns practical wisdom), it is apparently the dearth of such healing action (and the critique of traditional theodicies implicit in this) that, in Elkins’s reading, elicits the reader’s response. Although Elkins seeks to interpret God’s answer to Job as the imaginative renewal of a connection between Job’s suffering and compassionate divine response, he can only do so by implementing Royce’s principle that God suffers with us. He admits that this has little or no grounds in the text. Given this, the resources for healing can only be located in the reader.

This has important hermeneutical implications. Whereas Adams finds in scripture the resources for correcting current public debate, Elkins engages in something more like a correction of scripture: because God doesn’t appear to heal Job in the text, it is left to the reader to reconstruct the connection between Job’s suffering and God’s healing action in an imaginative reinterpretation of the text. For Adams, the relation between text and reader is somewhat different. Superficially, Job provides an example for the reader of how to conduct good argument. This relation is complexified, however, when we turn to exactly what the reader is to learn from Job. Because this cannot be summed up, it is impossible to ‘read off’ from Job the practical wisdom that he learns. The reader must take the journey herself – and this journey might turn out to be very different from Job’s. It is for this reason, as Adams notes, that Aquinas “writes a literal exposition, line by line, rather than offering a dogmatic summary of its teachings”.

Both Adams’s and Elkins’s readings, then, involve a tracing of the movements within the text . For Elkins, the act of tracing leads to judgement on the text: the judgement that there is a lack of healing response in the text. And this elicits a response from the reader. This act of judgement enacts the hermeneutical principle that Kessler brings to our attention: that “humanity should live by the commandments and not die by their observance”. The text must be reinterpreted so that it preserves life. In Elkins’s reading, however, the act of judgement has lost its anchor in the text: the reader carries the whole burden of responsibility. Adams’s tracing of the text’s movement has, if anything, the opposite tendency: the reader is to follow the movements of the text in such a way that they become her own. In this immersion, the moment of judgement is lost and the responsibility of the reader reduced.

I have set up this contrast between Adams’s and Elkins’s readings insofar as they embody opposite hermeneutical tendencies. The result is obviously a slight caricature. However, the opposition points towards a corrective third way which neither of them have implemented: that of arguing with scripture . This is a potential hermeneutical development of Adams’s argument which Adams does not exploit: just as practical wisdom is gained in debate with others, so might it be gained in debate with scripture. Indeed, this may have been a more obvious analogy to make with Job’s situation: Job’s argument with God takes the form of an argument with the traditions within the parameters of which he has learnt to relate to God (e.g. the doctrine of retribution). Just as this doctrine failed to bring healing to Job, and worse, spelled out the death of his real integrity, so can certain movements within scripture be death-dealing for us. Analogous to the question the book of Job forced us to ask about God: “Can God be our God and still be against us?” is the question we must now ask about scripture:

  • Can these texts be our texts and still be against us?

This death-dealing quality of scripture is a possibility that only Kessler really deals with in his examining of various violent texts (and which Elkins implicitly recognises). As Kessler makes only too clear, the reader’s immersion in the text’s movement can lead, rather than to healing, to the strengthening of ideologies and to great suffering. In the light of this, are we not called, not to abandon ourselves to the text, but – like Job – to wrestle with it? Again, echoing the question we previously asked about God (“Can we be true servants of God through arguing with God?”), we must ask:

  • Can we be true readers of these texts through arguing with them?

Not to do so would ultimately constitute a denial or suppression of the violence of these texts. One way of reading Heschel’s parable about the snakes is as a condemnation of precisely this. As Kessler states, “[t]he killing of snakes is an inadequate response in reasoning with the Bible.” Just as the man in the parable, instead of fighting with the snakes like the others, searched for a way out of the pit, we must learn how to deal with the violence in our scriptures by means other than denial or suppression.

This is what Kessler hopes to do in his rehabilitation and development of an approach of “exegetical relativity”, found in “the rabbinic willingness to see a multitude of different possible meanings, in marked contrast to the single ‘authentic’ meaning, backed by clerical or scholarly authority”. This involves the recognition that the text’s inherently violent plain sense is not the only possible meaning of the text. The adjudication between various readings is carried out according to the principle mentioned earlier: the duty to preserve life, and so the rejection of “any interpretation which promotes hatred, discrimination or superiority of one group over another”. Kessler later shows this plurality of meaning to be ultimately rooted in the inherent ambiguity of the text itself, and outlines the beginnings of an interpretation of Job which plays on precisely this ambiguity. This would seem to relocate the principle according to which the text is interpreted within the text itself. To draw this out further, one might say that the principle or duty to preserve life is itself discovered to be buried within the text, constituting its deeper logic. These are implications, however, that Kessler does not himself bring out.

Although it has a slightly different emphasis, my notion of ‘arguing with the text’ has affinities with the hermeneutic that Kessler develops here. In particular, it offers one way of drawing out and developing further these implications not brought out by Kessler. As has been noted, there are situations in which a text’s movement can be death-dealing. It is this that requires the reader, not only to immerse herself in scripture, but to wrestle with it. This wrestling has the potential, however, of uncovering deeper movements within the text that are, in contrast, life-giving. Indeed, if in wrestling with scripture the reader has in fact been wrestling with God, then this can and should be hoped for. Wrestling with God was what eventually led to Job’s healing – his learning of practical wisdom. The ultimately life-giving nature of the text – its deeper logic – is held in place by this divine involvement.

The hermeneutic I have been developing here is ultimately rooted in a reading of the biblical book of Job. As Adams says, “The book of Job is a masterpiece of interruption. No speaker is not interrupted and the book ends not with the answering of the questions, but with the end of an incomprehensible and painful interruption to a man’s life”. The book of Job, in other words, undermines its own authority as scripture. There is no authoritative voice in the text to which we can cling. One can only be drawn into the debate – a debate with scripture and with each other. The book’s ‘authority’ lies in the nurturing of this debate. Young’s experience of reading the book of Job with undergraduates testifies to precisely this character of the book: “for many students the idea of calling the scriptural text into question is incomprehensible. Yet [this dimension] of scriptural reasoning come[s] to the fore in studying the book of Job. One can’t reason about Job without such questioning, because that is precisely what Job does”.

The book of Job, in other words, can only baffle those who have not yet been apprenticed in such forms of character-forming debate. Such apprenticeship is one of scriptural reasoning’s aims. As Young says, “for those of us doing scriptural reasoning, it is texts such as Job that give us both the warrant and the trust to pursue these forms of questioning in our shared study”. Young’s experience also testifies to what hard work this can be: “how to bring students into the world of the text, rather than leaving them alienated from it by preconceptions and predetermined questions, is one of the most complex and subtle aspects of the dynamics of scriptural reasoning”. Fostering a real interaction with the text, which is at no point hindered or replaced by knowledge that is either already in place or distilled from the text, requires ongoing interpretation and thus imagination.
Both Kessler and Adams write in awareness of and response to the pluralistic environment they live in. Both seek resources within the scriptures for the development of a way to flourish in this environment. Kessler looks to rabbinic exegesis and Adams to the book of Job. Both recognise the need to learn how to relate to those who are different from oneself. Kessler speaks of the need to overcome the mentality amongst Jews which sees “the Jewish community as still being utterly engulfed by enemies”. He concludes that “the need to develop friendships and build positive relations with like-minded faith communities is essential”. Adams speaks more specifically about the need to learn how to debate with each other better. It is out of these responses to the pluralistic environment we live in (as well as some of other articles in the collection) that I have begun to develop a hermeneutic which enables one to deal with such plurality. This involves an arguing and wrestling with the text in which the knowledge gained in the process must never bring the process to a halt. Similarly, this ongoing interaction with the text brings us into debate with others in which our knowledge of the other never replaces our interaction with the other. Both forms of interaction teach us practical wisdom. Our differences from one another, then, should lead us into deeper debate and greater practical wisdom.

The problem is not thereby solved, however. What I have developed here, however much it draws on these other voices, is, as already indicated, my own implicitly Christian hermeneutic (rooted in the book of Job, and drawing heavily on Adams’s interpretation, which itself draws on the readings of three important Christian interpreters). It provides a perspective from which one may deal with the ‘informational’ differences between different faith-communities – like those uncovered in the comparison between Yazicioglu’s and Adams’s readings – by shifting the emphasis on to the common learning of practical wisdom. This assumes, however, that we already have a basis on which to debate with each other. It is vital, in other words, that this Christian hermeneutic is complemented, for the purposes of scriptural reasoning’s trialogue, by a Jewish and Muslim hermeneutic. (Kessler has already provided a Jewish hermeneutic, upon which I have drawn in the course of developing mine.) It is on this level that more basic and crucial divergences might potentially emerge, which could not simply be dealt with within the process of wrestling with one another: they might be of a kind that prevent us from coming into dialogue in the first place.

For those who have already experienced such life-shaping dialogue, there is reason to hope that the divergences of this more basic kind will, in the long term also, prove to foster rather than thwart the learning of practical wisdom.


1. This is based on the even deeper presupposition that everything happens according to God’s will, something which Mermer brings out in her essay.

2. Again, this is obviously rooted in a deeper presupposition concerning God’s nature: God’s most comprehensive and fundamental attribute is his mercy. This is also something which Mermer emphasises.


2004, Society for Scriptural Reasoning